"Finishing a mission on "Casual" level won't award you as many tokens as the more challenging choices and effectively prevents you from ever recruiting a full team of mercenaries. That's disappointing since one of the game's coolest features is the ability to recruit four special Cobra characters. You'll either need to man up and repeat stages on the higher difficulty setting (or do so right from the start), or you'll need to play through the whole adventure as Duke and Scarlet so that you have points left once the coolest characters become available."
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is a video game based on a movie that only the truly confident would ever have dared to create. Throughout production, thousands of fans criticized every minute difference from the original source material. Then there were the millions of potential new consumers to consider, people who would never have been satisfied without louder explosions, sharper swords and tighter leather than the franchise had ever seen previously. The effort required to please the masses could easily have kept the film from ever leaving the planning stages and it could also have prevented Electronic Arts from investing the resources necessary to produce a worthwhile tie-in. Fortunately, both of those bullets were dodged... mostly.
The first thing potential players need to know is that the developers didn't go the obvious route and create a Gears of War or Halo clone. Though there are elements of those games on display, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra most closely resembles the likes of Neo Contra. What you basically get is a run 'n gun title viewed from far overhead. Executed properly, that approach could have allowed for something truly epic. That's not what wound up happening, unfortunately, but there's still reason to pay attention.
Following a short sequence, the game places players in control of Duke and Scarlet as they make their way across some frozen tundra. Before long, those characters can be replaced or joined by new allies. There are quite a few available if you work at it, including familiar faces like Snake Eyes, Shipwreck and Beachhead, as well as a few more obscure troops that even long-time fans may not recognize. Characters fall into one of three categories: combat soldier, commando and heavy gunners. Some are good at hand-to-hand combat, some can quickly take down armored vehicles and gun turrets and some are more well-rounded. Units each have a signature special move, as well as a general style of attack, but mostly the differences beyond the general classes are visual.
It's difficult to take issue with that general setup. It works admirably, as far as it goes. However, follow through isn't always what it could have been. Nowhere is this more evident than when you stop to consider how massive the stages are. That wouldn't be a problem if they felt briefer than they are, but they don't. You'll often find yourself facing several waves of enemies without much to distinguish one encounter from the next. As a result, working your way through a zone can easily take as much as a half-hour or 45 minutes. That's a long time when there are 20 zones to explore. The genre is at its best when played in short bursts full of incredible explosions, thrilling shootouts and spectacular vistas.
A general lack of variety means that most of those attributes are out of the picture, however. For starters, there are only four distinct environments. The first time you walk through a snowy wilderness the sense of isolation is haunting, but the next six visits to the region lose that tension. Limited enemy variety doesn't help, either. There's a H.I.S.S. tank encounter at the end of the first stage, for example, and you'll still be fighting them during the game's closing moments. Those hulking vehicles may be classics, but they can't sustain a 10-hour story campaign. You'll come to tire of other enemies as well, such as the B.A.T. machines that litter most of the game's second half or the ninja warriors that materialize from thin air when you're distracted by gun turrets. The G.I. Joe universe is full of memorable characters, so dealing with the same seven or eight grunts starts to wear thin.
Difficulty settings serve as another concern, one that's again exacerbated by the length of individual stages. There are three choices and you'll play on "Casual" by default. Here, there's no such thing as a "Game Over" screen. Your penalty for failure is a significant hit to your score and potential battle points (more on that in a moment), but you'll re-spawn exactly where you fell after only a brief delay. Going with the "Advanced" setting imposes restrictions so harsh that for many players the game's closing credits will be an unattainable dream. Fallen characters only revive at checkpoints--which in later stages are spaced way too far apart--and if you fail to arrive at another checkpoint before losing your second character, you have to restart the stage... if the thought of a half-hour of lost progress doesn't have you in tears. As for the "Hardcore" setting, there are no revivals allowed at all. It truly lives up to its name.
The difficulty level at which you play is an important choice, even though you can change it between stages by visiting the "Options" screen. That's true not just because you might have trouble reaching the closing credits if you overestimate your skills, but because you could miss out on bonus content in the process. Finishing a mission on "Casual" level won't award you as many tokens as the more challenging choices and effectively prevents you from ever recruiting a full team of mercenaries. That's disappointing since one of the game's coolest features is the ability to recruit four special Cobra characters. You'll either need to man up and repeat stages on the higher difficulty setting (or do so right from the start), or you'll need to play through the whole adventure as Duke and Scarlet so that you have points left once the coolest characters become available.
That's a noteworthy concern when unlockable content is as important as it is here. Aside from the special characters you can add to your crew, there's not a lot of flair on display. You can find file cards throughout that grant access to biographical data and to character art, plus it's possible to unlock old public service announcements, but it would have been cool to see similar attention paid to in-game cutscenes. There are a few closeups throughout the game as the characters run toward the occasional boss battle and there are three or four brief exchanges elsewhere, but otherwise all players ever will see are the generally lifeless mission briefings. It's hard to be sure whether that oversight is the result of empty development coffers or just a lack of time. Either way, it's disappointing.
Even with all of those complaints, though, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra manages to engage. Walking onto a field as a missile-toting Destro and blowing H.I.S.S. tanks to bits somehow feels worth every minute of the hours spent unlocking the character. Taking down a Cobra helicopter while dodging between points of cover and projectiles is a blast whether you're just trying to survive or you're hoping to win while your score multiplier remains in place. The fact that many of the battles start to feel the same doesn't prevent them from providing a harrowing challenge (especially on higher difficulties, where so much is at stake with every evasive roll and every sword stroke), plus a two-player cooperative mode ensures that you'll wring many hours of play from the adventure as long as a willing friend is handy.
In the end, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is a good idea that could have resulted in a great game if its core design had been fleshed out with the same reckless abandon that Hollywood exercised when creating the theatrical reboot. Instead, the developers erred on the side of restraint and replaced flair with filler. Throughout the experience, you can practically hear a whisper in the background saying "What if this fails?" The lack of confidence in the project is evident in every recycled backdrop, every missed opportunity for a cinematic experience and every battle that drags on longer than it should. There's still a good game here and you won't even have to dig particularly deep to find it, but it could have been better still. Maybe next time, Joe...
Staff review by Jason Venter (August 12, 2009)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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